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Watch: Wayne Brown claims Auckland property owners 'blackmailers' over coastal walk

Ben Leahy,
Publish Date
Sat, 9 Dec 2023, 9:09am

Watch: Wayne Brown claims Auckland property owners 'blackmailers' over coastal walk

Ben Leahy,
Publish Date
Sat, 9 Dec 2023, 9:09am

Owners of the Paul Firth cottage and Auckland Council are attempting to reopen negotiations and access to the Takapuna-Milford coastal walk after mayor Wayne Brown’s fiery accusations of blackmail. 

The first negotiations to try to reopen one of Auckland’s most iconic walkways for summer were understood to be taking place yesterday, after the mayor levelled blackmail accusations last week. 

The owners of the Paul Firth cottage recently closed access to the tens of thousands of walkers who pass through their private land each year while following the 2.5km Takapuna-Milford coastal walk. 

Former owner Firth had opened his land free of charge in 2011 after a public bridge washed away in front of the property. 

The current owners earlier said they wanted to gift that slice of land to Auckland Council to be permanently used as part of the walkway, on condition the council removes a 2013 heritage listing placed over the cottage. 

But when the council was slow to respond to their offer, they fenced off their property, forcing walkers to scamper over “dangerous” rocks or take a longer detour. 

Mayor Wayne Brown last week lashed the closure as “blackmail”. 

Alex Witten-Hannah, the lawyer representing the cottage owners, yesterday bit back at the mayor’s comments as a “disgraceful” allegation. 

Community members are scrambling over rocks after access to part of the Takapuna-Milford coastal walkway closed over a heritage dispute on the Paul Firth cottage. Photo / Dean PurcellCommunity members are scrambling over rocks after access to part of the Takapuna-Milford coastal walkway closed over a heritage dispute on the Paul Firth cottage. Photo / Dean Purcell 

He also said his clients would likely be meeting a member of the Devonport-Takapuna Local Board yesterday to try to kick-start new talks to get the walkway back open. 

It comes after Auckland councillors last week voted to reject the property owner’s demands for the council to start the process of removing the cottage’s heritage listing. 

Witten-Hannah told councillors if they say they will start the process, the fence will be down within days. 

But Brown said it felt like the owners were trying to hold the council to “ransom” and he didn’t approve of their behaviour. 

“It’s blackmail, isn’t it?” he said. “They are sitting on several million dollars worth of land, which is clearly what they want to get their hands on.” 

Auckland mayor Wayne Brown. Photo / Michael CraigAuckland mayor Wayne Brown. Photo / Michael Craig 

“It is not even remotely blackmail,” Witten-Hannah responded at the time. 

“Blackmail is a criminal offence ... It’s simply making Auckland Council sit up and take notice,” he said, pointing out the council had taken a year to reply to his letters. 

“This is not the efficient council that you stand for sir,” Witten-Hannah said to Brown. 

Why is Paul Firth’s Takapuna-Milford coastal walkway cottage special? 

The cottage sits at what’s described as the highlight of the 2.5km Takapuna-Milford coastal walkway. 

Tens of thousands pass over the walkway each year, which also forms part of the 3000km Te Araroa trail running from Cape Reinga at the top of New Zealand to Bluff in the south. 

Te Araroa patron Geoff Chapple says the 9 Kitchener Rd property is special because walkers rock hop over 250,000-year-old lava formed during the region’s oldest volcanic explosion, while looking over water at the youngest volcano, Rangitoto Island. 

Walkers have crossed the property since WWII 

Coastal walkers have been crossing Firth-owned land since the end of World War II. 

A council-built bridge was constructed over coastal rocks in the 1980s. 

When that bridge washed away in 2011, Paul Firth – who lived in the cottage but owned the property with sister Ann – began allowing the public to instead pass through his front yard, within metres of his lounge. 

Then in 2013, the council placed heritage protection over the cottage. 

By 2018, Paul and Ann Firth’s estate had signed an agreement in which Auckland Council conditionally agreed to buy the property at 50 per cent of its market value with the idea of using it as an attraction for passing walkers. 

But in 2022, the council backed out of the agreement. 

Lawyer Alex Witten-Hannah at the Paul Firth cottage at 9 Kitchener Rd in Takapuna. Photo / Dean PurcellLawyer Alex Witten-Hannah at the Paul Firth cottage at 9 Kitchener Rd in Takapuna. Photo / Dean Purcell 

Famous photographer Clifton Firth owned the cottage 

The property is heritage listed because mid-1900s photographer Clifton Firth stayed there and used to meet a famed collection of artists at the property. A “very large collection” of his photos have now been gifted to libraries. 

The cottage also has “some significance as one of the few remaining holiday homes that were once prevalent throughout the North Shore”, the council heritage listing states. 

So what’s the controversy with the heritage listing? 

Witten-Hannah, the lawyer representing the owners of Paul Firth’s estate, said council placed the heritage listing in 2013 without consulting Firth. 

Witten-Hannah said the listing is unfair because, while all Firth’s neighbours have been free to demolish their homes and rebuild mansions, his clients are being penalised for not having done so earlier. 

He said the dilapidated cottage has no special historic value. 

But council staff and Devonport Heritage members said the property’s heritage value had been assessed by experts through a legitimate process. 

A letter about the heritage listing was also sent to Firth, but he never replied and there is no record he received it. 

Witten-Hannah and Firth cottage owners want the listing removed 

Witten-Hannah had been calling on council to remove the listing because he believes they put it on without proper consultation. 

The heritage listing greatly reduced the property’s potential sale price, given the council had valued the cottage at just $50,000 while its prime waterfront land has a $6.8m CV, he said. 

His clients would have to stump up $100,000 plus to try to have the listing removed, leading consultants to have a “feast” on the fees, he said. 

His clients promised to gift land to the council for the walkway in exchange for removing the listing and waiving $78,000 in accrued rates charges. 

Can the council remove the heritage listing? 

The council could potentially put in a plan change application to explore whether the heritage listing could be removed. 

Lawyer Alex Witten-Hannah on the Takapuna-Milford coastal walkway. Photo / Dean PurcellLawyer Alex Witten-Hannah on the Takapuna-Milford coastal walkway. Photo / Dean Purcell 

Mayor Wayne Brown and Auckland council will not seek to remove the listing 

However, councillors last week voted not to put in a plan change on behalf of the property owners. 

That’s because the application could cost $100,000 or more and had no guarantee of success, given it would be down to independent experts to determine whether the cottage had heritage value. 

Council staff also warned it could set a precedent. 

They said 71 the Takapuna-Milford walkway passed through 71 other properties and these owners could also try to start access negotiations with the council. 

Witten-Hannah and the Takapuna Residents Association countered this by saying the Firth property is the only one in which the walkway passes directly across the front yard with no stone wall or other physical barrier separating private living areas from public. 

So why doesn’t Auckland Council just build a new bridge? 

The original bridge was built on private land in the 1980s before modern planning laws, meaning the council would need permission to build a new one. 

Buy the property, Devonport Heritage says 

Devonport Heritage and the Te Araroa Trust urged the council to buy the Firth property because of its public immense value. 

The council could then carve off land for the public walkway and resell the rest of property, they said. 

The Takapuna and Milford residents associations urged the council to recognise the walkway as being nationally significant and find a way to reopen it as soon as possible. 

They described it as Auckland’s version of the Bondi to Coogee Sydney walk that could generate enormous economic returns. 

The Devonport-Takapuna Local Board urged a quick resolution to reopening the access before more people were hurt crossing dangerous rocks. 

Where to from here? 

Councillors voted to keep talking, describing the problem as a tough nut to crack. 

They said they won’t buy the property according to the conditions of the 2018 agreement or seek to have the heritage listing removed. 

However, councillors didn’t rule out buying the property under a different agreement. 

Councillors also wanted Devonport-Takapuna Local Board members to take the lead in negotiating with the property owners. 

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